Honest Company: What you REALLY need to know about the sunscreen “scandal”

I wasn’t an early adopter of Jessica Alba’s products. When Baby Lemonade was born I resorted to the usual brands for diapers, Pampers and Huggies. As a family tradition I used Mustela’s baby products. Baby Lemonade was blessed with normal (aka non-sensitive skin) and there was no need to buy anything too fancy, so I could reroute the money into buying her some Gucci and Stella instead.

Many new moms on social media had already jumped on the Honest Company diapers wagon and gave stellar reviews. Diapers were in a way the gateway drug into the Honest Company cult. Like SoulCycle and Bikram Yoga followers, there was so much hype and I have always been very skeptical of that. So my initiation to Honest Company was not through diapers and wipes and one of their bundles but something very different: dish soap. I was looking for something safe to wash Baby Lemonade’s bottles and I couldn’t find anything natural even in the products that purport to be natural. At Buy Buy Baby, I decided to read the label on the Honest Company Grapefruit Dish Soap: 8 ingredients and all understandable and yes, natural. I gave the Dish soap a try, then the hand sanitizer, the body wash and the lipbalm. All passed my test with flying colors.

When Baby Lemonade developed diaper rashes, I decided to go for the Honest Company Diapers and Wipes Bundle. The customer service was great but even better the product was excellent. I am so happy with the diapers and wipes that I actually felt a bit guilty about my initial skepticism. The real test was vacation, of course. We went to Italy and when we finished the Honest diapers we had dragged all the way from New York, we bought some regular Pampers diapers. Like clockwork the rash came back.

It comes as a surprise that so many people have been criticizing Honest Company for the past week. It started with the Daily Mail, then yesterday the Today show and even CNBC were going on and on about how bad the brand’s sunscreen is. And should we mention social media? It’s been a s#itstorm for founder Jessica Alba who seems to be publicly crucified about the seemingly underwhelming performance of one of her products. I haven’t tried the Honest Sunscreen because my dermatologist recommended another brand for Baby Lemonade. But what I have seen on TV, in the press and especially on social media is incorrect at best. While I am not a dermatologist I have been using sunscreen for the best part of my life since skincare was a big part of my upbringing. I also come from a Country, Italy, of sunworshippers. I dare to you figure out if my sunworshipping cousins and friends are younger than me. Sunscreen has been the single most powerful tool in my antiaging arsenal. But there are several misconceptions about sunscreen: people seem to think that it some sort of armor that protects us from the sun no matter what. The approach is to put it on and forget about it. Let’s clarify a couple of points so you can understand what is happening and make your own decisions.

Mineral VS Chemical Sunscreen

There are 2 types of sunscreen on the market today. Mineral  (also known as Physical) sunscreen contains 2 ingredients Titanium dioxide and Zinc Oxide that block the sun by reflecting the rays. Chemical sunscreen may contain many different ingredients. In Europe it’s mostly a compound called Meroxyl, in the US it can be a mix of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Chemical sunscreen blocks the sun by absorbing the rays.  There is no indication that one sunscreen is safer than the other. If applied correctly they both perform well, but chemical sunscreen seems to take a toll on sensitive skin. So sunscreens geared towards kids usually are only physical as they usually don’t trigger allergic reactions. The best course of action is to test both chemical and mineral products and see what works best for you. This summer I discovered that I get the best results from using both (more on that later).

What is SPF?

Once upon a time people believed that the duration of the effectiveness of a sunscreen could be calculates multiplying the Sun Protection Factor number by the time it would take a person to get sunburned without any protection at all.  Do you see any problem with this statement? I do: the lenght of exposure to the sun in the early morning and late afternoon would be the same as between 12 and 4PM. If you have been on the beach at 1PM you know full well that you’ll burn a lot faster. There is another problem: SPF measures UVB rays (those responsible for sunburn) not UVA rays (those responsible that penetrate the deeper layers of the skin). Even if you are wearing a high SPF sunscreen there is no guarantee about the UVA wildcard, unless you use a broad spectrum sunscreen (that protects from both). I have always used very high broad spectrum SPF sunscreens and they have served me well so far. But be aware that anything above 50 is usually only a marketing ploy as studies show that the additional protection you may get from an SPF 80 is not that far from SPF 50.

How to Apply and Reapply Sunscreen

Application and reapplication of sunscreen can vary depending on the type of product you selected. Given the different way they block the sun, these are usually the rules: Mineral sunscreen is usually effective on contact with the skin so you can apply immediately before going in the sun; Chemical sunscreen becomes effective 15 to 20 minutes after application. So if you are planning on going in the sun and applying a chemical sunscreen you will get burned my friend! As I mentioned above I have found that the best course of action is keeping both types of sunscreen handy.  I apply the chemical sunscreen before putting my bathing suit on…. it cooks for about 15 minutes before I get to the beach, and then I am ready to get in the sun and be protected. After about 80 minutes, whether or not I have gone in the water, I apply the mineral sunscreen that given my skin protection for another 80 minutes.  You are probably rolling eyes by now, but trust me this has worked for me (Mediterranean light olive complexion), my husband the Pirate (German fair skin) and Baby Lemonade (a mix of the 2). The application at the beginning of the day won’t help you fighting the rays midmorning and in the afternoon. If you want to be protected you need to reapply. So when I see a red haired mother complaining about Honest Sunscreen that burned her red haired girl, I start to wonder if the mom applied and reapplied correctly. The same way, if I see a bald man complaining, I would like to know whether he was sweating and if he reapplied once the sweat wiped away his physical sunscreen.

Is sunscreen really Waterproof?

In 2011 the FDA has changed the rules on sunscreen and its waterproof claims. In the past you would buy bottles of sunscreen claiming to be waterproof and even sweatproof, but then you’d get burned because you went in the water and failed to reapply. As my parents taught me at a young age, if you want your sunscreen to be reliable, whether it is marketed as waterproof or not, you need to reapply often.  How can you even expect a lotion to be waterproof and last all day is beyond me! So the FDA decided to set the score straight and limit the marketing claims of sunscreens. Now the waterproof and sweat proof claims have a time limit (usually 40 or 80 minutes). But the best course of action is to slather on more sunscreen than you think you will need, more often than you think. That is the only way to make sure that your protection will be consistent throughout the day.

Is natural sunscreen really better?

All claims that something made in any factory is natural should be taken with a grain of salt. In general even natural ingredients may be damaging, and not all chemical ingredients are bad per se. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. You have to try what works for you be it natural/organic or chemical/man made.  As I mentioned above I use both types of sunscreens at different times. You might argue that I am a beauty junkie and have disposable income to buy 2 bottles of different sunscreens. Well, I admit I am a beauty junkie but nowadays there are sunscreens at all price points, so do yourself a favor and try sunscreen “Lady Lemonade Style”. It’s kept me young for 36 years, I swear by it!

What does sunscreen-gate mean for Honest Company?

Let me put my attorney hat on for a second. Honest Company is a huge success, with a valuation just shy of US$1 billion. Honest will be launching a cosmetic line in the fall, is expanding to Asia and has boots in airports (which I think is genius). As much as I think founder Jessica Alba did a great job, there are other people involved in this success because she couldn’t do it on her own.  She is the face of the company but I find it a bit unfair that people on social media are targeting “Jessica Alba’s sunscreen”. After all she is not the chemist who formulated the sunscreen.  Would you blame Bill Gates because Windows is underwhelming? Yeah, I didn’t think so…

What’s happening here is a bona fide smear campaign attacking a celebrity who created something from scratch. I don’t know Jessica Alba, but she seems to be a woman who used her celebrity to create good products that I actually appreciate. There is a “Gwyneth Paltrow Effect” at work here (the need to bad mouth a successful woman for everything she does or says, no matter what). I have seen the GPE at work also in everyday life and let me tell you one thing, it’s a shame! Most people who took to social media on their crusade posted pictures of sunburned skin and claimed they were diligent in applying and reapplying the product. But are they to be believed? Did they do their research prior to buying? Did they really apply as directed? In the court of public opinion people feel the need to vent their frustration conveniently omitting the fact that SPF 30 may not be suitable for their skin type (I wouldn’t let my daughter out without at least SPF 50) or without taking responsibility for a potential mistake they made. Maybe there is something wrong with the Honest sunscreen, maybe not, but they shouldn’t attack one of the founders of the company just because she is a public figure.

What do you think of sunscreen-gate? Have you tried the product? What results did you have?

[This is NOT a sponsored post. I have received no consideration to write this post and the opinions expressed herein are my own. I am not a doctor and the experience with sunscreen described above is a my own. Before exposing yourself and your family to the sun you should always consult a a doctor. And if you want to use a product on your children test it yourself first – there is no need to put your kids through the misery of sunburn because you didn’t do your due diligence.]